There’s no pleasure quite like Edie Falco letting loose on a torrent of obscenities. This isn’t news – but it’s nice to get a reminder. Falco is an actress of extraordinary range and grace, capable of communicating complex ten-step emotional journeys with little more than a flick of her wrist. Playwright Sharr White allows her many such restrained moments in his new work The True, a world premiere from The New Group. But in one particularly memorable scene – probably the play’s best – White lets Falco go full-blast. It’s a beautiful thing.
In the scene in question, Albany Democratic operative Dorothea ‘Polly’ Noonan (Falco) is laying out a future for Bill McCormick (Austin Cauldwell), a young Albany native she hopes to install as a Democratic Committeeman. When naïve Bill suggests that he does not, in fact, intend to remain in Albany for life, Polly turns on a dime. “You motherfucker!” Falco screams, not a little bit to my delight. “You go to work for a senator if you want to do something. Build something. Where’s the dedication? Where’s the FUCKING dedication?” All of Polly’s passion comes spilling out in this moment – the good and the bad.
What makes Polly’s dedication more intriguing is the very unofficial nature of her position. In real life, Polly Noonan was a behind-the-scenes power player in the Albany Democratic machine – specifically on behalf of Mayor Erastus Corning (Michael McKean), who served as mayor 1942-1983. Noonan never worked directly under Erastus, but was known throughout Albany as a fixer on his behalf; while there were also rumors (never confirmed) of the two having had an affair. Noonan is also known today as the grandmother of current U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a likely presidential candidate in 2020.
White’s play, set in 1977, dabbles in a mix of fact and fiction. Amidst a potentially brutal primary, Mayor Erastus has abruptly decided to cut Polly off. Suddenly concerned about the “perception,” he half-heartedly insists she stay away from his campaign. Even having just met Polly, we know as well as Erastus that this will never happen. Polly continues to battle tooth and nail for her Mayor in the ensuing months, pushing his agenda as though nothing has changed.
That premise sounds like more fun on paper than it plays on stage. Even in the work’s more engaging moments – like Polly’s doomed courting of young Bill – the dialogue tends to meander, robbing the play of much momentum. A story about keen political minds should be itself sharp, but the pace here is closer to domestic drama. White does often seem more interested in Polly’s marriage to Peter Noonan (the always wonderful Peter Scolari), frequently hitting pause on political intrigue to allow room for their late-night chats. Falco and Scolari find intriguing shades to this comfortable, seemingly sexless partnership – but the relationship doesn’t really change, and these scenes grow repetitive.
The political drama is far more engaging, though not always helped by director Scott Elliott’s slack pacing. A mid-play confrontation between Polly and Erastus is meant to be a turning point, but plays sleepily. Her powerbroking sessions with Erastus’ rivals move quicker, though they are light on policy specifics. (You won’t leave knowing a ton more about the Albany Democratic machine than when you came in, which is strange given the insider-y premise.) Elliott’s leisurely direction feels all wrong with political operatives who, most likely, talked fast and acted faster.
Amidst of all these flaws, though, there is Falco. Her Polly is defined by devotion – to her family, to her Mayor, and to the Democratic Party. She cares deeply about the things she values, and it is this intense affection that Falco runs with. Her Polly can be warm ‘grandmother’ one moment, and master manipulator the next. Best of all, none of it is fake – Polly’s emotions are as sincere as her beliefs. Falco nails the play’s most interesting idea – an individual guided entirely, both in ideology and heart, by the grinding gears of a political machine.
Twice in the play, Polly points out that her hard-nose demeanor would not be considered a flaw if she were a man. Of course, it’s true – but these lines have a contemporary air, and make explicit a point which already lives in Falco’s s performance. Noonan was held back institutionally because she was a woman – but as wonderfully embodied by Falco, holds nothing back personally. As a historical figure, Noonan probably deserves a more vibrant, passionate play than this one. But in the meantime, at least we have Edie Falco.